Stop the sniping about climate change

The Observer editorial board

Hurricane Harvey as it neared the Texas coast last month.
Hurricane Harvey as it neared the Texas coast last month. AP

It should not be controversial to say that we must come to grips with a changing climate and smartly prepare for the world we’ll be leaving our kids and grandkids. And, yet, that simple notion, like so many other things, elicits predictably partisan reactions every time the subject is broached. That unfortunate reality has only been heightened as we experience the heart of the hurricane season and some of the most powerful storms we’ve ever seen.

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh told millions of his listeners that the media was hyping coverage of Hurricane Irma because it wanted to “advance this climate change agenda.” Limbaugh soon fled his Florida home, like millions of others, to avoid the approaching hurricane. While Houstonians were still braving flood waters and processing what they had just faced – and would face for several weeks, if not months – a sociology professor at the University of Tampa tweeted that though he didn’t believe in instant Karma, Harvey “kind of feels like it” and “hopefully this will help [Texas residents] realize the GOP doesn’t care about them.” He said it was in response to “the GOP denial of climate science.”

There is no longer a real scientific debate about the reality of climate change or that humans have contributed to it, particularly because of the heavy use of fossil fuels that has been occurring for decades in the developed world. That doesn’t mean scientists are prophets, just that the science has detected a significant probability that extreme weather events will increasingly impact our way of life. Imagine, for example, how life in the Carolinas would be affected if the economy of popular resort Myrtle Beach is undermined by unpredictable and extreme weather patterns.

This is not a Chinese hoax, as President Donald Trump once said, though later said he was only joking. Irma became the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin and remained at a Category 5 level, the highest, for longer than any hurricane before it. The damage toll from Harvey may have set a new all-time-high – if it isn’t bested by Irma’s destruction. What once were considered 100-year or 500-year flooding events have been happening with increasing frequency.

And while it’s impossible to say with certainty that any single weather event is directly caused by climate change, The Economist recently noted that the number of extreme natural disasters worldwide – including forest fires, droughts and landslides – has quadrupled since 1970, including the monsoon season in South Asia that killed more than 1,200 people as we were focused on hurricanes hitting the U.S.

The magazine also found something encouraging, that the overall death toll from such events has been declining because of prevention efforts and development and building design features that have been better able to contend with them. It means we have the capability to adjust, but only if we stop getting caught up in partisan sniping that puts us all at risk.